Saturday, January 31, 2015

Upper NF Smith River (Oregon Coast Range)


The NF Smith (Oregon Coast Range) has been on my radar for many years, after having it mentioned to me on a few separate occasions by some of the pioneers of kayaking in this area. I was told that you could hike ~2 miles to the base of Lower Kentucky Falls / North Fork Falls, where you'd put-in and be treated to continuous class III/IV bedrock rapids. I wasn't sure how long the run actually was, but after looking at the topo maps, a road bridge was located ~5 miles downstream – a perfect length for a relatively obscure run. Another thing that I was told was that you needed quite a bit of water for it to go, and the best online gauge to use was the one located on Siuslaw River (at Mapleton), where you’d want a reading of ~15’.

I had actually come close to doing this run on a few different occasions, but plans always fell apart at the last minute – it can be pretty difficult to convince people to go do a run like this when other more well-known ones are in, especially when it requires a hike in and a high potential for wood. Then out of the blue, my buddy Jacob texted me to see if I was interested in finally checking it off the list. Of course, without hesitation, I jumped on board.

Along with Jacob, we’d have Lucas & Kory coming from the north, and from Eugene, Roman, Emile, Ben and I would be rounding out the boating crew for the day. Since we’d be coming from different areas, we decided to meet up on Hwy 126, about 15 miles west of Eugene. When we got to the meeting point, at least one in the group expressed concerns about the quality of the whitewater on the run. Apparently he had hiked along it at lower flows and felt that it didn't have enough gradient to be worth it. This certainly contradicted both the beta that I had received from others who had done it as well as my own topographic research, which indicated that it averaged ~100fpm over its 5 mile length. Of course this did have me second guessing the potential for good whitewater, but after a couple of phone calls re-validating the original beta and not having a good backup plan, we decided to move forward with the mission.

The drive to the Kentucky Falls trailhead, from Eugene, leads you through a maze of forest roads in the Oregon Coast range, as well as through some rather large and obnoxious clear cuts. It’s actually quite surprising that such a popular hiking destination is so hidden away. Once we finally arrived at the trailhead, we quickly changed into our boating gear and headed down the trail with our boats on our shoulders. In less than a mile, the trail reached the top of Upper Kentucky Falls, where it fell nearly 100’ onto a jumble of rocks, rendering it completely unrunnable. The trail eventually snaked its way down toward the base, providing a good place to take a quick rest as well as some photo ops. Just below the falls, the creek continued to tumble down the hill over a cascading drop, which looked marginally runnable if not for some unfortunately placed wood. As the trail continued to parallel the creek, more steep whitewater continued, although knowing that we still had a mission in front of us, we didn’t stop to see if it would have been worth putting on the small side creek.

Looking over the lip of Upper Kentucky Falls
(photo by Priscilla Macy)

The crew making their way down the trail, around Upper Kentucky Falls

Photo op, at the base of Upper Kentucky Falls
(photo by Priscilla Macy)

Hiking past the cascade below Upper Kentucky Falls
(photo by Priscilla Macy)

The bottom half of the cascading drop below Upper Kentucky Falls
(photo by Priscilla Macy)

After crossing over Kentucky Creek (via a small footbridge), the trail led us up and over a ridge, before dropping us down into the NF Smith drainage. From here, the trail headed down a series of switchbacks and upstream a short distance to one of the most amazing put-ins I’ve been to. It’s at this point that Kentucky Creek and the NF Smith converge, after each drops over equally impressive waterfalls. Just with Upper Kentucky, Lower Kentucky Falls dropped onto rocks, and although it was hard to tell, I would assume that NF Falls did the same. After taking in the view for a few minutes we finally hiked down to the edge of the river to put on.

Looking downstream from the footbridge
(photo by Priscilla Macy)

Getting close
(photo by Priscilla Macy)

Made it!
(photo by Priscilla Macy)

Ben, taking in the view, at the put-in

When I had looked at the river from the trail, I was a bit nervous that we wouldn't have enough water, but now in my boat, this anxiety was quickly subdued. Although it certainly wasn't at flood stage, it definitely had a nice push to it and eddies were surprisingly scarce on the first stretch of the run – this along with potential for wood forced us to leapfrog downstream while using hand signals to communicate. The first hazard we came to was a wood strainer, just downstream of the put-in and on the right side of an island. In hindsight, we could have avoided the portage by going left of the island, but even so, the portage was pretty easy and soon enough we were heading downriver once again.

The next major obstacle was a low angle slide that dropped over a small but distinguished horizon line. Ben, who had already had run the drop, was giving us signals on where to run it. As I watched a few boaters in our crew line up and go over, it became apparent that there was a tricky hydraulic at the base. The shallow slide above the ledge certainly didn't help with lining up for it, and since I was working hard to do so, I was only able to muster a half-assed boof attempt and was deposited into a pocket that required a deep brace to come out of it upright. Looking back upstream, it appeared that the easy line was to run hard right off a short vertical drop with a minimal hydraulic at the base.

Jacob running the straightforward right line.
The pocket to his left produced some interesting results

As we headed down, the river widened a bit and highlighted how surprisingly large of a drainage it actually was – I'm guessing it had 800 to 1,000cfs. More low-angle bedrock slides continued with a relatively continuous nature. Although it was mainly a class III/IV affair, there were definitely some holes that could work you, and the ever-present risk of wood kept us on our toes. We did get out to look at a few drops, which I was happy to do since I was also trying to get some photo documentation of the run. One particularly fun rapid that I remember was an S-turn style drop down the left side of the river. This drop also had a nice little waterfall pouring down off the river-left wall, which added to the ambiance.

The crew makes their way downstream

Kory drops into a fun S-turn drop

Roman, in the middle of it

Amongst the next series of slides, we came to a larger drop with a short boulder garden at the start. It was good that we had gotten out to inspect it, since all but the hard right channel fed into a rather nasty looking piece of wood. Although the move to make it right wasn’t too difficult, you definitely wanted to make your strokes count. Below the initial boulder garden, the rest of the rapid consisted of small splashy holes to drive through.

Kory enters another fun drop

Roman, somewhere in one of the busier sections

Lucas makes the move to the right, to avoid some nasty wood on the left (not visible)

Just around the corner was another sizeable horizon line, where Emile (who apparently had already run the drop) was standing on an island and giving beta. From what I could understand, he was telling us to go right of the island and that we needed to get a boof somewhere in the middle of the drop. After watching a couple of the others drop in, I setup for my turn. Once I had committed, I could see what Emile had suggested to keep our bow up for – a pretty sizable ledge-hole that typewritered me to river-right and just barely let me go. Happy to be safely below the hole, I eddied out and took a few photos of the others running the next drop – a wide shallow ledge into another large hole on river-right.

Roman gets buried, while sneaking the large hole at the bottom of a long shallow slide.

Next, we reached a drop that I had jumped out ahead for and caught an eddy on river-right to see if it was clear. From the eddy it looked clean but I didn't have a good enough sightline to feel comfortable giving it the “all clear” signal or dropping in myself. I signaled Jacob into the eddy that I was in, to see if he could get a better glimpse. Right about the time we both decided that one of us should get out and take a look, Ben snuck by and was able to drop into an eddy just below us, where he confirmed that the drop was clean. With that, we signaled back up to the others and dropped in behind Ben, running what ended up being a pretty fun rapid.

Finishing up the last of "the goods"

Now about halfway through the run, a footbridge passed overhead and the river flattened out quite a bit. The mellow character of the river continued through the whole second half of the run, but luckily the scenery continued to entertain. Furthermore, the water moved along at a fairly good rate and although we had to squeeze under and around a few logs, none of them required a portage! Before long, a road bridge came into view, signaling the end of the run and our adventure for the day.

Class II from here

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I’d been wanting to get on this run for a long time – simply put, I wasn't disappointed. The first half of the run was fairly continuous with some really fun drops in the class III/IV range. Even the 2 mile hike in wasn't too bad, given that it was all downhill on a good trail and the falls along the way provided some amazing scenery. One thing that I wasn't expecting was the complete lack of wood portages, and although we did have one at the very start of the trip, this could have been avoided by going left at the first island. For an adventure-style run like this, it was actually pretty easy going and I’m a bit surprised it isn't in any guide books or has any online info.

All that said, I certainly wouldn't call it a classic, but it’s a great choice when everything else in the area is running high. We had around 13’ and dropping on the Siuslaw at Mapleton gauge, which I’d say correlated to a good medium flow. I’m guessing it would probably go pretty good up to maybe 16’ to 18’ on the gauge, but some of the holes would probably get pretty big and eddies slim above blind corners. Of course if you ended up getting in over your head and needed a bailout option, a hiking trail parallels the run for its entire length. As for the low end of the flow range, you probably wouldn't want to hike in for this one if the Siuslaw gauge was below 11’ or so, simply based on the shallow slides that make up a majority of the best drops.

Flows on the day we did it (the 18th)

All in all, I would definitely call this one a successful mission – a great crew and a great day on the water!

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